We’ve all seen this movie before, right?
Plane’s going down, mountainside fast approaching and the pilot’s pulling back on the controls with all his might. But there’s just too much baggage on board.
The co-pilot, Norv Turner, jumped voluntarily last Wednesday. The plane inched upward with the optimism that comes with 31 completions and a fourth-quarter drive that should have been game-winning but wasn’t.
Looking to his left and right, pilot Mike “Sully” Zimmer sees the Packers and Lions wobbling along with similar records toward that same NFC North mountainside. His Vikings are 5-3, losers of three straight, but the Lions (5-4) are still recovering from a 1-3 start and the Packers (4-4) have given up 64 points in back-to-back losses.
Zimmer surveys the situation. He has considered unloading another 170 pounds to get the lift he’s looking for. Kicker Blair Walsh weighs that much, not counting the scar tissue that comes with missing seven kicks in the eight games since his infamous 27-yard miscue in the closing seconds of a 10-9 playoff loss.
Zimmer has been struggling with this decision for 10 months. He appeared to reach his breaking point Monday. After announcing that kickers would be auditioned Tuesday, Zimmer essentially said the process of regenerating the team’s overall confidence can no longer tolerate the drag of 53 players crossing fingers and toes in hopes that a PAT makes it through.
Tuesday came. Kickers worked out. No one was signed. Go get ’em, Blair. No pressure, buddy.
When Walsh missed five kicks in the first four games, the Vikings were on their way to a 5-0 start. When Walsh missed a game-tying PAT and had an off-line 46-yarder blocked during a six-point swing in Sunday’s loss to the Lions, well, that, unfortunately, was a predictable plot twist after three quiet weeks without a pressure kick.
Asked Monday if he thought Walsh “could still be a successful kicker here,” Zimmer said, “I think Blair can be a successful kicker, yes.” Leaving out the word “here” sure seemed intentional.
Now, who knows? The assumption is Walsh lives to kick another Sunday.
But if the quarterback, running back, both offensive tackles and a coordinator can disappear by midseason, then jettisoning a kicker at some point soon wouldn’t seem so out of place.
The Vikings might not win the division, but they’ve made it clear they’re not going to stop scratching at the door under any circumstances. They lead the Lions, Packers and Bears (2-6) in a division that has its share of flaws.
In fact, the fourth-place Bears are 2-1 in the division and 0-5 outside the division. Each team has at least one division loss, and there is neither rhyme nor reason to any of it as, for instance, the Packers beat the Bears, who beat the Lions, who beat the Vikings, who beat the Packers.
Here’s a closer look at the four teams:
Vikings (5-3, 1-2 in North)
Strength: No. 1 scoring defense.
Weakness: Injury-riddled offensive line, kicker.
Division games remaining: Bears; at Lions; at Packers.
Next three games: at Washington; Arizona; at Detroit. Combined record: 12-11-2.
Lions (5-4, 1-2)
Strength: Quarterback Matthew Stafford. He has led them from behind in the fourth quarter in all five wins. The battle-tested Lions are the first team in NFL history to have their first nine games decided by seven points or fewer.
Weakness: Pass defense. Sam Bradford became the eighth opposing quarterback in nine games to post a passer rating of 100 or better. The Lions also have given up 10 touchdowns to tight ends, a sign of how much they miss linebacker DeAndre Levy.
Division games remaining: Three home games.
Next three games: Jacksonville; Vikings; at New Orleans. Combined record: 11-13.
Packers (4-4, 2-1)
Strength: Offensive line. Guard T.J. Lang and tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are Pro Bowl candidates for a unit that has given Aaron Rodgers excellent protection.
Weakness: Passing game. Despite time to throw, the receivers aren’t getting open, tight end Jared Cook is sorely missed and Rodgers doesn’t look like himself in terms of accuracy, decision-making and poise.
Division games remaining: Vikings; at Lions; at Bears.
Next three games: at Tennessee; at Washington; at Philadelphia. Combined record: 12-12-1.
Bears (2-6, 2-1)
Strength: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Somehow, the Bears rank ninth in yards allowed per play (5.19) with a defense that has had to use 30 players in eight games.
Weakness: Not enough depth to get back in the hunt.
Division games remaining: Packers; at Vikings; at Lions.
Next three games: at Tampa Bay; at Giants; Tennessee. Combined record: 12-13.